This is not the first time I’ve got this hand hold wrong. I think I have photographic evidence another time as well. Do you know what it stands for? Its not the standard V shape that you make with your 2nd and 3rd finger. Its not a symbol for money like I originally thought it was (and like my hand hold assumes). It is, as far as I know, a symbol for love: a heart. Contextually, it makes sense: a wedding.
I don’t think I realised how little culture I knew til I was back in a culture I knew well. Granted, I knew that it would take years to learn some culture and I’d still be only scratching the surface. But you don’t realise the storehouse of culture that we imbibe from our home culture. Decades of exposure, compared to a shallow immersion in Khmer culture.
In my home country I understand clothing trends: jean styles moving from bell-bottoms to bleached to straight to tight to so-ripped-there-is-barely-any-jean-material-left. I’m not even a fashion expert, and I know that basic transition. I would have no idea of the current clothing trends in Cambodia or where they have been or where they are going in Cambodia. I feel the lack of culture even more in relation to movies and songs. Being back in Australia and being able to reference lines from movies we share in common like “I’ll be back” or “How’s the serenity” without a strange look of “What did you just say?” Or being able to start a line and not need to finish it, like, “From little things ….”
Does this make me feel despondent, the shallow nature of my cultural understanding in Cambodia? Nah. Does that mean I just feel like giving up? Nah. Two things. I appreciate more my Australian culture and the depth that I have there. And I look forward to days, not when I can know all the cultural references made in a conversation down to the last proverb, but when I can share some of them with my Cambodian friends. The beauty of sharing a joke together. It seems to me that culture is a form of sharing.
Warning: This is a more abstract reflection on being a missionary
Before leaving for Cambodia I did a brief seminar on my thoughts on immersion and connection as a missionary as a sort of thought experiment of what it would be like to be a missionary in a new place, seeking to get to know (immersion) while also being known in another place (connection). Towards the end of my first 3 year term in Cambodia I wrote a post summing up my thoughts in this regard.
One of the surprises of first term was where we ended up on my made-up immersion/connection spectrum. In short: not as immersed as I thought. Now, as I reflect on that, I can see lots of reasons why. The main reason is captured in the missiology language of insider and outsider. I think the goal is to move towards being like an insider in a new culture (for us, Cambodia). What’s interesting is how far you can actually move towards being an insider. Of course, you can never be a true insider of a new culture, even if you’ve been there for yonks. There will always be a sort of distance.
But I don’t think that distance is wrong. In fact, in some ways, its necessary. One of the necessities of mission (exemplified in the CMS model of mission) is that we do it in partnership. We are sent. We are not lone rangers. We are part of a fellowship. That requires communication or connection. As you communicate, what you have to do is step back from experiencing in order to observe and document and describe. That distance is necessary in communicating with others, but it changes your stance toward the new culture. Again, not that distance is bad. We don’t say that a doctor should not have distance when they treat patients. In fact, some distance is necessary to be a good doctor. A good teacher has distance as they have to be able to see the whole in order to rightly teach the next step. Mission today requires more partner experience. We see this in the nature of mission communication. Not only is it prayer points that should be sent monthly, but videos, pictures, media that enables or assists partners, in some way, experiencing what the missionary experiences. In this sort of partnership model, there is a movement from the immersion of the missionary to the immersion of the partner.
As I think back to arriving in Cambodia, the thing that I was least prepared for was the dirtiness of the place. I was ready for the stifling heat even though I didn’t know how much it would sap you. I was ready for grind of language learning despite not fully realising how slow it would be. I don’t think I was prepared for the dirt. I knew it wouldn’t be a clean place, like more developed countries. But I was thinking it would be more like what rural Cambodia is currently. That is, mostly natural vegetation and beauty. And even though I’d been to cities in Asia before, the dirtiness of the place still caught me off guard the most. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia is a beautiful place. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is not. A close second to the surprise of dirt is the amount of rubbish that you find dumped everywhere.
I first saw the dirt when flying over the airport as we were about to land for the first time. We then experienced the dirt first hand when our house needed to be mopped twice daily just to stay clean. And we are not clean freaks. In Australia we mop much, much, much less. What I found intriguing on my bike rides to class was the shop owners watering the road just outside their house. I haven’t checked this, but I assume it’s to dampen the dirt so less dust comes into their shop.
I rode my bicycle every day in Cambodia. What this meant for me is that for the three years I rode a mountain bike. The quality of the roads goes hand in hand with the dirtiness and so rather than switching to a road or racing bike in the city, I ride mountain bike because there is still a need for it on many of the roads I ride on.
On reflection after our first term, the other thing that I least expected was how much language you can pick up. I thought that to be good at language meant being immersed in the culture and community; going to a local church, local school and living amongst locals. What surprised me is that we didn’t do this as much as we thought and yet I was able to make significant gains. This is partly because CMS frees us up to really learn language in the first term. But my thought had been that we would need to be ultra immersed. And true, that would help. But immersion in the way I thought it is not the be all and end all. In fact, the more I think about it, it was because we weren’t as immersed as I thought that enabled me to do as much language as I did.
Our video captures this aspect of surprise from our first term.
This time last year I didn’t think I would be starting a new blog series from Australia. We had planned to be back in Cambodia by now. COVID has changed many things for many people. As a result, we’re still in Australia. But we’re aiming at returning to Cambodia in January.
COVID also changed our time here. While we were able to visit all our partner churches, over half of our church visits were done digitally. We were flying by the seat of our pants with this digital deputation as churches were coming to terms with what church looked like in these crazy times. One week, I couldn’t have told you what Zoom was. A month later I used it almost daily.
One consequence for us is that we didn’t get to share with as many people as we would have liked about our time in Cambodia. Further, even when we did share, we didn’t have the same opportunity that you would normally have to go a bit deeper when you are face to face.
To try and remedy that lack of connection, this blog series will cover some of the things we shared about in our church visits. It will also help us consolidate our thoughts as we gear up for our second term in Cambodia early next year.
We’re looking forward to catching up with many of you in person this home assignment in Australia. In order to assist us I would love it if you could share questions that you may ask us in person, prior to us meeting in person. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask us these questions in person. But if I’ve thought about these questions and have a few answers prepared pre-conversation I’m likely to give a better answer.
My thought is also to blog a few FAQ, not to detract from being asked these in person, but so that we can go deeper together in our experience of Cambodia as we share about our time there. This is essentially a strategy to strengthen our partnership together.
Questions about anything, welcome. Questions about family life, about language, about Cambodia, about anything else related.
So without further adieu, I’ve loved to hear any questions you may have from our first term in Cambodia. Send them to me anyway; comments below, an email, facebook or other.
Hello from Australia. This post coming to you from Corks in Australia.
Just prior to leaving Cambodia our looming transition felt like a tidal wave coming towards me of which I could do nothing about. This is not meant to be negative description of my experience, but more that it highlights the bigness of what was coming and how quickly it was coming. Quite a few sleepless nights also testifies to the size of the change that was coming.
Then as we arrived, whiplash; like landing in an airplane with your body squeezed to seat as you land and you can’t do a thing. Pre-leaving Cambodia had been this frantic dash to the finish. But on arrival there was a necessary slowing from that frantic pace. In that slowing you realise how quick you’d been going, even if you didn’t fully realise it at the time. We went from doing many things in a day to one thing a day (not dissimilar to when we first arrived).
Then as we’ve begun to settle in, there is the feeling of floating above your body (an out of body experience). The reality of what has just happened sinks in. We have just spent the last 3 years in Cambodia and now we are back in Australia for our first home assignment. Having been away there is now a distance associated with our home culture and so with those changes that have occurred in us and in Australia, we take some time to process, hence the out of body experience.
Thus as I try to reconnect my body to myself floating above, I’ll be taking a break from blogging over Christmas, while we settle in. However, I aim to start again early 2020 with more reflections on our first 3 year term in Cambodia, reflections on being back and thoughts as we head towards our second term. If first term was about language learning (even though that was through teaching), the second term could well be characterised as primarily ministry (teaching) although still language learning (life-long learning).
In order to catch me when I start blogging again, sign up on email to be notified when I begin again or like our Corks in Cambodia facebook page.
This is not a Jenny Craig or Subway ad. Nor is this a weight loss ad expounding the benefits of living in Cambodia for weight reduction. The raised hands are a language win celebration, not a weight win celebration. Notice I’ve lost some hair too.
I’ve had numerous Cambodians and foreigners remark on my weight and how I’m looking good. For some foreigners this is an expression of thankfulness that I seem to be doing well in a hostile climate. For Cambodians, it’s more complicated and so I’ll save my remarks for below. All the more so because they can smell a kilo change up or down like a bloodhound.
What’s the reality? In the first year of living in Cambodia, I dropped nearly 12kg. Partially this was through riding a bike daily in what can only be described as a sauna on the coolest of days. But a fair bit of my weight loss that first year was through sickness, new diet, new place, new bugs. The heat also stifled my appetite. Not to mention those lovely power cuts. One night in a power cut I was standing above my daughter at 10pm fanning her to sleep and I could feel the sweat dripping off me as I just stood there.
So when people comment positively on my weight, in some ways I appreciate it. But there’s more to the story. Cambodia is a place where it is easy to both lose weight and gain it or constantly be in a state of flux, weight wise. For me I’ve made the most of this situation. My tennis background and many afternoons running around in the summer sun have prepared me in a way that I didn’t realise until I got here. Remarks on how I look good are welcomed, to be sure. But when these remarks are made with the assumption that my time in Cambodia must have been a breeze, that’s when I internally react. I haven’t just spent my whole time at the gym. The trick is how to share with others just how hard it has been.
I come from a very supportive organisation. Exercise is a priority, for relieving stress and preventing brain farts (doing something stupid) that come from being in a constantly stressful environment. Like troops working out in a compound while at war, exercise is a vital part of living safely cross culturally. Thus one of the reasons I exercise is as part of my mental health plan, to reduce the risk of doing something stupid from all the stress of living here. The reality is that even after journalling and exercise and trying to be smart, there is still an underlying stress that doesn’t get removed until we go out of country. So I exercise to make sure we leave Cambodia for good reasons, not brain explosions.
For the sake of honesty, there is a little bit of vanity that plays into my exercise routine as well. But this is a minor, rather than major driver.
That’s the reason for my exercise routine (mostly mental health). The result is that I get a lot of comments, particularly from my Khmer friends. They are often just trying to be encouraging. Remarks on weight for them is not a taboo subject. It’s more like chatting about the weather. Also, their weight scale is sometimes the opposite of us. Cambodia and other Asian countries often see weight gain as a good thing because it’s a sign of wealth. So I wonder when they see a missionary arrive and lose and lot of weight what they think about that. They certainly have no problems mentioning it. Weight is definitely not taboo (neither is age and how much you earn). So if I come here and lose weight, I wonder if they associate that with wealth or not. There is also a growing understanding of health and the importance of exercise, but this is certainly in its infancy.
So when I lose weight they comment. I anticipate gaining weight in Australia and so I’m prepping myself for the comments of how I have gained weight when I return to Cambodia; “Oh brother, your face is fatter than before.”
Hope this gives you glimpse of what it’s like to think about weight as a missionary in Cambodia.
Living in Cambodia as a foreigner is like living with two personalities. It’s like living as a king and pauper at the same time.
Very aware of how much money we have as westerners as we ride past kids working instead of going to school, or when the street sweeper is so glad for your empty cans. In our daily life we are confronted with how much we have and how little others have. Why do we feel frustrated at losing 50 cents when really we can handle it? There are so many here with so little. Even the growing middle class here has a vastly reduced spending power compared to us Westerners. Our daily experience shows us a reality that is harder to see living in Australia. That is, our wealth.
Yet, in that same breath, we are living off less than we did in Australia. We are able to do less here than we would in Australia. We hear from friends and family and all that they are doing. So, while we are confronted with our wealth, we also are conflicted with memories and experiences of having more in Australia.
This perspective, living with both lots of money and with less, is a blessing because it’s a challenge. Particularly, this is seen in killing the unnecessary want to have more and more or to acquire the new and better things that I find myself more easily seduced by back in Australia. When others around me don’t have as much, it helps me to not want as much either. I’m able to see more clearly the ridiculousness and lie of materialism. So the blessing of living in Cambodia is that it rightly forces me to think through what we have and what we value.
I know that it will be hard to keep this perspective in our return. I hope I can, to some extent. But this perspective has been strengthened by living in a place with less. Leaving a place of less, and heading to a place of more, will make it harder to be challenged in this same way.
One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.
Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.
Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.
Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”
Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.
So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.
As we come closer to coming home for a decent time, one thing that changes is how we look at life in Cambodia. Life in some ways doesn’t change. Cambodia doesn’t change. But the way we view it changes.
I remember early on in our time here in Cambodia, I was taking a tuktuk home and I was just overwhelmed by all the “new” I was experiencing. That tuktuk ride I stuck my head in a book to limit the new. Fast forward to a week ago, I noticed myself thinking about how we wouldn’t be around for a while and how we’d gotten used to life here. As a result of that thought, as I rode on my bike, I was looking at all the things, thinking about how I wouldn’t see them for a while. What had once caused me to hide was now something that I could handle, I was trying to take it all in.
Because of transition, my view on things had changed. If we’d just stayed on here without a break, I would not have noticed the same things. But, with the upcoming flight, my perspective had changed, my awareness of Cambodian life was different in the face of transition. In transition we are given the gift of reflection, and we are also given the gift of awareness; a similar awareness found when we reflect on the passage or speed of time in general.
One area that this awareness particularly impinges on is around friendships. Missionary friendships are in some ways different from friendships in home countries. What unites us is often a similar purpose, even if we are from different organisations or backgrounds. This unity often leads to friendships becoming closer quicker than they would elsewhere. But part of the pain of transitions is the awareness of relationships that have gotten close quickly in a context of fluid relationships; where people come and go more than they do in other places. This same awareness will come to us again in the opposite direction as we return from Australia to Cambodia. But right now, transition heightens my awareness in Cambodia (even as my head moves toward Australia).